I recently read Asking For It by Louise O’Neill, and while putting together my review, I realised I had a lot more to say about the content of the book. I was originally intending to do a joint review and discussion post, but it ended up being far too long, so I’ve decided to write my discussion separately.
*Trigger Warning* – Rape and Sexual Assault
This is a discussion that I’ve felt brewing in me for some time, one that I’ve never sat down to write, or fully verbalised in any way, but reading Asking For It has pushed me over the edge, and even if no one reads my words, at least I’ll have gotten them off my chest.
Asking For It deals fantastically and honestly with many controversial issues, including victim-blaming and rape culture. Topics that are often difficult to openly discuss, but these are the conversations that we need to be having.
In a 2013/14 survey by the Office for National Statistics (England and Wales), almost 20% of female respondents had experienced some form of sexual assault. The figures also show more than a quarter of respondents believe drunk victims of rape or sexual assault are at least partly responsible for what happens to them, and shockingly a third of respondents thought sex attack victims had partial responsibility if they had been “flirting heavily” beforehand. Worryingly, these views are held in the majority by young people under the age of 25, which is also the age category reporting the highest numbers of sexual abuse crimes.
The effects of victim-blaming can clearly be seen in the survey, with one third of victims telling no one about the attack, and only one sixth reporting it to the Police. Those who didn’t report the attack provided a variety of reasons, which should be an eye-opener for us all, including: embarrassment (50%), not wanting more humiliation (30%), thinking the Police couldn’t help (26%), thinking they wouldn’t be believed (21%), thinking the crime is too trivial/not worth reporting (14%), fearing more violence as a result of involving the Police (14%), thinking people wouldn’t be sympathetic (12%), and not wanting the person who did it to be punished (8%).
A total of 64,205 sexual offences were reported in 2013/14, and as this represents the small one sixth of incidents that are actually reported, we can begin to see just how vast this problem is. The after-effects are further reaching than you may think. Nearly half of the victims reported suffering physical injuries, but 61% also suffered mental or emotional problems, and 41% reported having problems trusting people or having difficulty in other relationships. The victims reported becoming pregnant in 5% of cases, and contracting a disease in 3%. In 9% of cases, the victim attempted suicide as a result.
The analysis above is of sexual assault perpetrated by a male towards a female, and does not include an in-depth analysis of male on male sex crime, female on female sex crime, or female on male sex crime, mostly because figures are not freely available.
Our current societal culture legitimises sexual assault by blaming the victim for the attack, and makes a variety of excuses for the perpetrator’s actions. This needs to stop. Not only is it ridiculous to put the blame for sex attacks squarely on the victim’s shoulders (regardless of their clothing, behaviour, or level of sobriety), but it’s also a cultural response based entirely on myth. Statistically, the majority of rape and sexual assault cases in the UK occur when the victim is sober, by someone they know.
Rape and sexual assault are routinely trivialised, and the onus is usually on the victim to somehow prevent the attack from happening in the first place – don’t have too many drinks, don’t wear a skirt too short or you’ll attract attention, don’t walk home alone, don’t encourage flirtation, don’t put yourself in “that position” in the first place. This is mixed with the implication that it is “natural” for men to pursue women, to the point of coercion. When growing up female, there is an unwritten rulebook we need to learn to protect ourselves. However, we are also told that we are sexual objects, that our self-worth is directly proportional to how attractive and desirable we are, and that sexual attention is considered complimentary. We are taught to use our “feminine wiles”, while remaining virginal.
When a sexual assault does take place, the victim often feels guilt and shame, and questions their actions to determine what they did “wrong”. The victim remains silent, internalising the trauma. It never fails to amaze me, how many assault stories go untold. If you were able to ask your mother, your girlfriend, your sister, your daughter, about their experiences, about the times they’ve been objectified, belittled, coerced, manhandled, groped, cat-called, propositioned, pressured or shamed, the sheer number of stories would amaze you too.
No matter what happens, she’s #NotAskingForIt.
I could never eloquently put these thoughts into words as well as the fantastic Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who said:
“We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are. If we have sons, we don’t mind knowing about our son’s girlfriends. But our daughter’s boyfriends? God forbid. But of course when the time is right we expect those girls to bring back the “perfect man” to be their husband. We police girls. We praise girls for virginity. but we don’t praise boys for virginity…
Recently, a young woman was gang-raped in a University in Nigeria, and the response of many young Nigerians, both male and female, was something along the lines of this: “Yes, rape is wrong. But what is a girl doing in a room with four boys?” If we can forget the horrible inhumanity of that response, these Nigerians have been raised to think of women as inherently guilty, and have been raised to expect so little of men that the idea of men as savage beings without any control, is somehow acceptable.
We teach girls shame. “Close your legs”, “cover yourself”. We make them feel as though by being born female, they’re already guilty of something. And so, girls grow up to be women who cannot see they have desire. They grow up to be women who silence themselves. They grow up to be women who cannot say what they truly think, and they grow up – and this is the worst thing we do to girls – they grow up to be women who have turned pretence into an art-form.”
Now, this is where feminism comes into the equation for me, because “victim-shaming” and “rape culture” are phrases often associated with “those feminists”. A recent conversation with someone I admire left me shocked and disappointed. I’ve always thought that while this person may not self-identify as a “feminist”, their actions matched the ethos. To discover that they are vehemently opposed to feminism, well that’s a conversation that still lingers with me, and will for some time to come. It did make me realise that feminism is still shrouded with negative connotations and misunderstandings, and I wish people would educate themselves on the subject first before deciding to oppose it so strongly.
To some, it’s still about privileged straight white males in suits, and privileged straight white females, arguing about glass ceilings and pay gaps. While this is true to a certain extent, feminism has evolved, and will continue to evolve to be so much more than that. It’s about sexual assault, it’s about gender-norms, it’s about homophobia, it’s about the constant stream of comments I hear in a male-dominated industry that undermine females sexually and professionally. If you are uncomfortable with the term “feminist”, then be an “equalist”, or a “humanist”, or a god damn “do-the-right-thing-ist”, but don’t sit there and tell me that we don’t need feminism, that “it’s not like that any more”, because as Roxanne Gay says, I’d rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all.
Please feel free to share your thoughts, opinions and experiences in the comments.